Faculty Spotlight: Adam Persky, PhD
Take the first time he ever taught a class: a nutrition and exercise course at the University of Massachusetts, where he was pursuing his masters.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Persky says. “I don’t think I ever sweat so much in my life. I was like, ‘I know nothing about nutrition. I eat doughnuts for breakfast. What do I know about nutrition?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. These are freshmen and sophomores. They know nothing.’ ”
Fast forward to 2003—his first year teaching at the UNC School of Pharmacy—and his lesson on hepatic clearance.
“My knees were shaking,” Persky recalls. “I was one step away from having an anxiety attack because it was hard material, and I didn’t want to screw it up.”
And then there was the time he was tossing out candy on the first day of class and nearly beaned a student with a miniature chocolate bar.
“I didn’t put enough loft on this one, and it whizzed at this poor girl’s head and went by her ear,” he says. “It was the first day of class, and I didn’t know these students that well. I just couldn’t stop laughing. Two years later, I still talk to her and joke about almost killing her. It was a great icebreaker.”
While teaching may not seem like something that came naturally to Persky—and the self-deprecating clinical assistant professor might be the first to tell you so—it has become his passion. Despite his initial anxiety about teaching the class at UMass, Persky enjoyed the experience, in part because of his interest in the course subject and in part because of the interaction with students.
By the time he earned his masters in exercise science, he had decided that he wanted to become a faculty member so that he could teach. Positive teaching experiences at the University of Florida, where he earned a PhD, reinforced his commitment to the classroom. After a fellowship at UNC, he joined the faculty at the School, with teaching being his primary responsibility.
“If I had to be a faculty member and not teach, I don’t think I’d be here,” Persky says. “Research is fun. I like research, and I like publishing, but I like the interaction in class with the students.”
The nervousness he felt in that first class at UMass hasn’t gone away, but Persky says that’s not a bad thing, even if he has to cope with the preclass jitters by pacing around his office while fiddling with a soft baseball bat.
“The day I stop getting nervous before I teach is the day I’m in trouble,” he says. “That nervous energy helps me out. Baseball players play 180 games. How can you be excited after 180 games? You figure at some point you get tired of it, but I guess it’s the energy of playing. And this is the energy of teaching.
“To this day I still get nervous before I teach. You have in your head the way things should go, and you want things to go that way. You hope they do, but they never actually do. You leave class thinking you are the worst thing to ever happen to the word 'teacher.'"
His students and peers obviously disagree with that performance assessment. Near anxiety attacks and candy-related mishaps notwithstanding, Persky has earned several teaching awards, most recently receiving honorable mention in the Innovations in Teaching competition sponsored by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.
Research in the Classroom
While Persky holds a PhD in pharmaceutical science, he veered away from traditional research to focus on his passion for teaching. Much of his research now comes in the form of looking for new and better ways to instruct his students, which is especially important considering the difficulty of the courses he teaches.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried different things to engage students, to get them to appreciate my area of expertise a little bit more because pharmacokinetics is typically one of the more hated courses in the pharmacy curriculum throughout the country,” Persky says. “It’s very math-based, and math scares a lot of students. So everything I’ve done to date has been aimed at helping students learn what they need to learn so they can apply it.”
To that end, he has devised various exercises and games to make the classroom more interactive. His favorite exercise so far is a game in which he creates a crime-scene investigation scenario using characters from popular TV shows such as House and Grey’s Anatomy. In the scenario, a victim dies from a drug interaction, and the students have to work in groups to piece together about fifty clues to figure out the culprit and how the crime occurred.
Persky says the interactive classroom activities require adjustments by both the students and the teacher.
“Students are used to sitting there and just writing notes, so when you try to do something different with them, they get a little skittish,” he says.
“And it’s harder for me to do those sorts of things because I have no idea what’s going to happen at the end of class. If I go there and lecture, I know exactly how it’s going to go. I have everything planned. But when the students have input, ask me questions, and have ideas, it forces me to do things differently, which forces me to develop different ways to approach it.”
The unexpected, however, can be a positive, as Persky found out during one of the crime-scene investigation games.
“Last year, one of the students had a very long, very detailed answer of what happened,” he says. “I had to sit down for it because it took so long for him to explain it. But he incorporated almost every aspect of the clues into it and really made it sound quite reasonable. It was something I never even thought of.
“When you design things that are out of the ordinary, such as games, I can't predict what will go on and what should happen, but sometimes things just happen and you go, ‘Well, I didn’t expect that, but I’m glad that happened,’ or ‘I’m glad that question was asked.’ ”
Appealing to the iPod Generation
Persky is currently involved in a project to develop another interactive learning tool. He is part of a team that is creating multimedia modules for the professional pharmacokinetics curriculum. The modules are designed to enable students to learn the basic contents—material that would normally be covered in lectures—before coming to class. Class time would then be used for higher-level learning, such as discussing practical applications.
Around the same time that leaders at the School were looking into the project, UNC Information Technology Services was considering something similar through the Teaching and Learning First Partners Program. The two teamed up to produce a pilot module on the hepatic clearance portion of the curriculum.
“Hepatic clearance is the most difficult material in our course, but it also has a lot of good graphical representational material,” Persky says.
“ITS said, ‘This is exactly what we are looking for, and you guys seem to be prepared, and you already have stuff on the table, so you’ll be our first partner.’”
Persky and Gary Pollack, PhD, the School’s executive associate dean, began working with instructional designers and multimedia developers from ITS. They completed the pilot module, which contains approximately one-and-a-half hours of class material, in fall 2006 and conducted a trial run in one of the classes that semester.
During the hepatic clearance section of the course, half the students in the class attended normal lectures while the other half used the module instead of coming to class. The two groups were given a quiz on the material before and after the lesson. Persky says the quiz scores showed that both groups improved after attending the lecture or using the module, but that there was no significant difference between the two groups.
“I did as well as the module,” Persky says. “Overall I think the students liked coming to class better because they were used to me and the way I talk about things. Students liked the module, too. The modules are great, but we don’t want to lose our human contact. We didn’t want to lose the faculty member. It’s more of ‘You do your job outside of class, and we’ll do our job inside of class.’ ”
The trial results suggested that the modules can be effective in content delivery, and the team began producing a series of ten modules that will encompass the entire course. They will be incorporated into the curriculum in fall 2007. Students will use the modules before attending class and will split into three groups during class to discuss application of the module material. Each module contains a quiz, which will count toward the students’ grades. The modules also will serve as self-assessment tools to help identify areas that students need to work on.
“The course has taken on a very different structure because of these modules,” Persky says. “I’m used to standing in front of 150 people and speaking, whereas now it’s discussion. In order to discuss, you really have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to know how to ask the right questions to bring people out.”
The development team will continue to collect data on the modules via student performance and surveys. The modules also track things such as how much time students spend on a particular section and the steps they take in working through the exercises.
“I think this approach is hopefully more engaging, and if you design it right, it can be engaging and sort of fun,” Persky says. “What we are trying to do is to appeal to a generation born with iPods in their ears.
“It can benefit a lot of courses, but it’ll probably span from being eighty percent module to ten percent module, depending on the course. You still need students to be able to read books and primary literature.”